Welcome to my monthly Reader Suggestions feature! Every month I post a question to our Frugalwoods Facebook group and share the best responses here. The questions are topics I’ve received multiple queries on and my hope is that by leveraging the braintrust of Frugalwoods nation, you’ll find helpful advice and insight. Join the Frugalwoods Facebook group to participate in next month’s Reader Suggestions!
It’s harvest time! As I shared in last week’s installment of This Month On The Homestead, early fall is the time to preserve food for the winter. I am a brand new devote of preserving food (also known as canning or putting up or freezing or storing or whatever you want to call it) and so my knowledge is commensurately minimal.
Before moving out here to the woods, Mr. Frugalwoods and I never preserved a single foodstuff, so this is a whole new world for us. Thus far, we’ve only preserved foods that grow in our garden, which includes making canned rhubarb compote, canned pickles, refrigerator pickles, dehydrated apples, frozen berries, and canned beans.
Mr. FW (the resident chef) also cooks large batches of stews, soups, and chilis, which we portion into quart-sized ziplock bags (one quart seems to be about right for the two of us for dinner, with a bit leftover for Babywoods) and pop in our deep freeze for future use. This is nice and all; however, I know many folks who purchase large quantities of inexpensive produce at the end of the growing season with the sole intention of preserving it for future consumption.
I’ve never forayed into this world of buying-and-preserving and I must say that my frugal antennae are piqued. Does this method save money? Does this method ensure fresher, more delicious foods throughout the winter? Where does one buy such large quantities of food? What methods does one employ for preservation? Fear not, we’ll get to all of these questions and more.
A Note On Food Safety
Before we dip our fingers into this delectable topic, permit me a caveat on food safety. Canning and preserving food has the potential to go horribly, dangerously wrong if you don’t follow food safety guidelines. The goal with canning (which is actually usually done with glass mason jars and not cans) is to create foods that are shelf-stable and do not require refrigeration. Thus, it is imperative that these foods are preserved properly.
To ensure you’re not running afoul of such health considerations, my recommendation is to always utilize reliable sources for your recipes. Since I refer to the internet for everything, I like to use extension school websites for canning recipes as these recipes are formulated and tested at universities–yay! These people know what they’re doing. Here is the recipe I used for my canned rhubarb compote, courtesy of the University Of Minnesota extension school.
Other good online sources are prominent food and recipe companies or blogs, such as Better Homes and Gardens (Mr. FW used this recipe of theirs for his canned cucumbers) or The Kitchn, from which he sourced this recipe for refrigerator pickles. Reader Julie shared this excellent resource for canning safety: the National Center For Home Food Preservation.There are also approximately 1 million different reputable books on canning, which you can check out from your library.
I do not recommend using slapdash or handed-down-through-the-generations recipes for canning. Please ensure you’re referencing the most up-to-date information as it pertains to food safety. This is not meant to scare you off, merely to point out that this is one of those things you want to do right.
Of course the other way to preserve food is simply by freezing it, which works great and is a lot less labor intensive. The downsides are that it can take up a LOT of freezer space and, some things don’t come out of the freezer in tip top shape. I freeze chopped rhubarb, dried apples, berries, and soups and stews that Mr. FW has cooked.
After experimenting with a number of different containers (tupperware, food storage boxes, etc), I’ve discovered that the best containers to freeze in are plain old ziplock bags for several reasons: 1) they take up the least amount of space, 2) they are easy to label and reuse, 3) you can reliably remove all the air before sealing them shut, 4) they are inexpensive, 5) I’ve never had anything come out freezer burnt. We have a deep freeze in our basement, as well as a conventional freezer above our refrigerator, and all of our long-term food storage takes place in the deep freeze. Since deep freezes are colder than conventional freezers, food tends to last longer and come out fresher.
In order to effectively enter the world of canning, there is some necessary equipment one must have. You all know I hate buying things, but, I do like buying things that enable greater frugality and I’m of the opinion that preserving foods is one of those things.
To make life easy, Mr. FW and I ordered this entire canning start-up kit last year, which contains just about everything one needs in order to can, including: tongs, a funnel, a jar lifter, a magnetic lid lifter, and more!
Next, you will need a large pot in order to boil water in–we got ours from our Buy Nothing Group several years ago. You can also use a pressure canner, but as these are more expensive, it’s cheaper to start off using your own pot of boiling water.
And finally, you need something to place the food in. We use glass mason jars along with lids and rings. Lucky for us, all of these supplies–except for the lids–are reusable. Lids can be purchased separately so that you’re not buying more jars or rings than you need. There are also some reusable lids available on the market.
How Frugalwoods Readers Preserve Food
Since so many questions about this newfound (to me) world of canning swirl around in my neophyte-preservationist head, I decided I’d better ask the best resource out there: the readers of Frugalwoods. Sure enough, lots of you preserve food and you were kind enough to share your insights! I couldn’t include everyone’s response below, but you can check out the full conversation on Facebook.
Laura shared that since she and her family aren’t big fans of the taste of canned veggies, she freezes most of hers instead. She does can jam, applesauce, and salsa. She also belongs to an organic veggie/fruit group and freezes surplus and in-season veggies and berries in a chest freezer.
Connie says, “Preserving takes time but saves us money. We did 22 pounds of cherries from our cherry tree. The mason jars we got at a thrift store for 29 cents a piece, so we just had to buy lids, which were available at the dollar store. It has helped me spend time with my daughter. Next we’ll be making salsa and pressure canning soups.”
Bruno wrote, “I grow a lot of my own veg and we invariably get several gluts a year to deal with. I blanch and freeze french beans, broccoli and mangetout peas and make ratatouille and garlic courgettes (zucchini) and freeze in portions. My favourite thing to preserve is apples. I store homemade juice, make cider and my personal favourite – loads of apple cake for the freezer (and some fresh with a nice cup of tea of course).”
Casey said, “We have two apple trees in our suburban backyard. We won’t have any fruit this year, but last year I made applesauce for the freezer. The easiest way I have found is to just core them and cut out any bad spots (don’t remove the skin). Cook them in the electric pressure cooker, then blend right in the same pot with a stick blender. Spoon into wide-mouth canning jars and toss into the chest freezer. There is a line on the jars that marks max fill for freezing. At this stage of my life (I have a toddler and a baby), I am not interested in learning to can. I don’t bother to add sugar as our Fujis and Golden Delicious are sweet enough without it!”
Julie shared, “44 bags of frozen shredded veggies to throw into soups, muffins, chili, sauces. Tomatoes will be roasted and frozen. Fresh veggies every day in our all too short Vermont summer. Apples and corn are purchased and frozen; sliced apples for pies and applesauce. I can get 10 lbs of ‘drops’ for $5.00 compared to $2 a lb at the store. Blueberries picked at a friend’s for free. I have never determined the costs but when I see dozens of squash on a $3 organic plant, I know I’m winning in the cost department!”
Laura Anne reports, “We have a big garden, my goal is to make enough pasta sauce, salsa and ketchup for the year from our tomatoes, peppers and onions. Our reliance peach tree is a big producer, so far this year the kids (three boys 11, 4.75, 2.5) and I have canned 29 quarts of peaches from it. I freeze beans and peas if I have extra… In the past I have made zucchini relish… We have a root cellar for potatoes, apples from the neighborhood, beets, carrots and sweet potatoes. We store winter squash as well. Last year we canned 75 quarts of applesauce, that is a family project of epic proportions. Overall from our canning, I would say we save a couple thousand dollars a year plus the time and energy of going to the store!”
Kirsty reports, “Since starting our vegetable garden last year we have cut our food bill by $30 a week.” She also preserves her garden via “freezer, bottling and drying – whichever is the easiest as to not take too much time. Frozen tomatoes in large freezer bags instead of using bought canned ones is my favorite! My main goal in the garden is to always have enough vegetable to make a simple salad or stir fry – healthy, quick and satisfying to make when I’m busy during the week. And bonus – this past summer has been really wet in New Zealand with vegetable shortages so it feels great to be able to walk past the really expensive supermarket vegetable aisle!”
Julia writes, “I pick local strawberries for freezer jam, we have a veggie garden for tomatoes (canned whole, make into sauce and freeze), green beans (blanch and freeze), cucumbers (canned dill pickles), summer squash (cook and freeze), jalapenos and green peppers (chopped into salsa). We live in the “fruit belt” in South Central PA so we have local peaches which we can and apples for applesauce. I was gifted a nice canner several years ago and it should last my whole adult life and beyond. I’ve never calculated price difference, including time, supplies, and electricity for the stove top, but since I plan to keep doing it for years to come I think it will be worth it. Plus it tastes so good and is so nice to have in the winter!”
Bonnie writes, ” I can and freeze my produce along with sharing extras from my garden. I shred and freeze a lot of zucchini, freeze my raspberries and strawberries. If I get apples from my parents I freeze them and I either make applesauce or use for baking. From my tomatoes in my garden I can salsa and spaghetti sauce. Also freeze (or use in salsa) my different peppers I plant in the garden. If our corn produces (if the squirrels don’t get to it) we freeze that. I either can pickles or make refrigerated pickles from our cucumbers we plant. I love having fresh produce from the garden to enjoy later!! I look at all the money I save by growing it myself. Some things cost more than others but overall I save a lot though I have never kept track.”
Sarah says she preserves food in her freezer and that, “We buy what’s on sale at the local farmer’s market, and if we don’t eat it, we freeze it. Also, we buy stuff in season, and freeze it for when it’s not in season. I will say, though, that makes us appreciate what’s in season more. Fresh strawberries become a real treat when you haven’t had strawberries since the last summer. And it’s not like we feel deprived — it’s just that they’re something we look forward to. Same thing for squash, asparagus, peaches, and so on.”
Jessica relayed, “We hit up the U-pick blueberry farm ever year, which does save us money. I think if you buy organic produce at the grocery store that you can save money buying organic or unsprayed produce at farmer markets or U-picks. I have also bought ‘seconds’ which are the less desirable fruit that may have a bruise or two to save a few bucks. I live in Oregon so farmers markets, CSA’s, and grow your own is almost required.”
Katharine shared, “I can all our tomato product for the year (except ketchup but I think I’m trying that this year!). I usually can about 48 quarts, with a mix of straight tomatoes and tomato sauce. I occasionally do salsa and soup too. It’s not cheaper than the cheapest product you can buy at Aldi’s, but I know the tomatoes I buy from my local farm are pesticide and fertilizer free and not canned with BPA, plus it tastes so much better! And it’s less waste/recycling since I use my jars over and over. (Note- reusable Tattler lids will stain with tomato sauce so I tend not to use them for tomato product.) I also do about 40 quarts of applesauce for many of the same reasons (and so much tastier!). I also make all our jellies out of whatever I can get off our local trees or from a farmer- my kids love those for pb&j! Finally, the one thing I do preserve that is much much cheaper is dried herbs and fruits. I do at least 2 and last year 3 bushels of apples and all my own mint, basil, thyme, rosemary, parsley, oregano. I like buying local to support my local farmers who use sustainable practices. Oh, and I always can using Ball or USDA recipes, except for one heritage peach chutney recipe that is from my great great aunt (I know, not smart, but sooo good!!!).”
Jennifer wrote, “I grow lots of extra tomatoes, kale, broccoli and peas every year to freeze in my large chest freezer. I blanch the broccoli and peas to use in stir fries, pasta, and as sides. The tomatoes get diced for Indian curries and chili. And I blanch the kale to use in smoothies and soups.”
Christina says, “I just did my first jam recently when I was given an abundance of rhubarb. I bought the strawberries on sale, and was able to get several jams that I could give to family, as well as a few for me (I eat A LOT of jam). It was so easy, I’m looking forward to making more, and branching out to other preserves!”
Tabitha shared, “I can, dehydrate, and freeze. My garden isn’t large enough to support my food needs so I do buy a lot. I don’t buy much at the farmers market any more because it was too expensive, but there are several local farms and farmstands within 15 miles! I love knowing what is in my food and directly supporting people in my community.”
Ted explained, “We grow a large garden on a typical sized suburban plot in Alaska, so our season is short and a lot of things don’t do well in 24 hours of sunlight in the summer. Nevertheless, we can, dehydrate and freeze enough vegetables, herbs and berries to last us for about six months (plus what we eat during the summer.) We also trade produce with friends who salmon fish and moose hunt; once in a while, we trade produce or finished product such as chutney or tomato confit for eggs. We keep track of every penny we spend on that summer’s garden, and weigh everything we harvest. At the end of the summer, we go to the grocey store and price out every item, to see what it would have cost us to purchase those groceries. On average, we would have spent about $2,000 for the amount we harvest—and that is after subtracting all expenses. We do not account for our labor, but we feel like that is free exercise. We also keep track of how much compost we “harvest” because if we didn’t use compost to freshen beds we would have to buy soil—we just finished pulling out the completed compost from three bins. It was enough to fill 12 bags of 50 quarts per bag! All from things we would have thrown out into the landfill if we didn’t compost. The only year we didn’t make money from our garden was the summer we built a greenhouse, which cost a fair amount even with some scavenged materials. But that greenhouse has enabled us to grow decent tomatoes, eggplant and cukes.”
Nicole shared, “A farm a few miles down the road has ‘pick your own’ veggies for $1 a lb… I go weekly and will also freeze for the winter.”
Rachel makes a great point, “It is really only worth the work if you will actually eat the food. Since we don’t like the texture of canned vegetables, why do the work? I live near a wholesale market so I get flats of produce when they are at their cheapest and can them. It is marginally cheaper, but it does help reduce our overall grocery bill in the winter when produce is more expensive. I do low sugar jam, peaches, pineapple, pears, and applesauce. And I do all the fruit without sugar- just make sure to follow the instructions exactly! And use a recipe from the Ag extension or the Ball book–this isn’t the time to go nuts on Pinterest.”
Julie notes, “We live close to an agricultural area and can purchase cases of fruits and veggies in season. Sometimes you can get 20 lbs of peaches for $8.00. But not many people want to eat canned peaches anymore. So I will make drunken peaches, pickled peaches or peach chutney. We love chutney and pickled anything. We make what we like to eat.”
Jennifer makes, “Pickles pickles pickles! Not just cucumbers, but everything. I just learned to can last year so I’m still building my skills. My CSA farmer recommended Food in Jars as a good beginner book, so my 35 pints of dilly beans are from there. I like it because it works with small quantities, though a lot of the recipes are very sweet to my taste. I have a community garden plot and planted it for pickling (green beans, carrots, daikon, leeks, etc.). I also haunt the farmers market all summer and pickle everything from there and the CSA box I can get my hands on. We live in an area that is high risk for earthquakes, so it’s frugal but also good disaster preparedness. I’m also learning fermentation, which is even easier and will last all winter. I make them by the quart. For cucumber pickles, all of my recipe books recommended using grape leaves to maintain crispness (using the tannins), but I didn’t know where to find grape leaves and I didn’t want to buy them. I did some research and experimentation and found out blackberry leaves (an invasive plant where I live and growing everywhere in summer) will work equally well. I get books from the library to experiment with and buy the ones I know I like. I most heavily use books like Fermented Vegetables and Fresh & Fermented. Fermented foods from the store cost about $9 for less than a quart, and I put about $2.00 worth of produce into a jar, so I save roughly $7 each time I make a jar. Canned pickles are anywhere from $4/pint to $9/quart, so it varies for canning, minus cost of lids. Jars I got for $0.29 from the thrift store by the cartload and now have a lifetime supply.”
Debi writes, “We glean the neighborhood. I have apple trees and thornless blackberries. Neighbors have apples, pears, plums, sour pie cherries. I can jams and jellies for gifts and for sale, plus sell bags of frozen berries. Neighbor lady and I work festivals with her juice press and give fresh cider tastes for donations.”
Jennifer shared, “We ferment our own sauerkraut! After trying a local brand which was a shocking $12 for a 16 oz jar, we decided to learn to make our own. All it takes is cabbage, salt and patience! Now a 16 oz jar costs us literally pocket change.”
Danielle says, “We have a foodsaver and save any extra food in our deep freezer. I regularly receive excess fruits and vegetables from my parents and in-laws, which I chop up into portions we’ll use and freeze. We do this with meat as well. Since there are only two of us, we will buy the large family packages of meat, but we will then break that up into a few separate foodsaver bags and freeze them for a later meal. Usually this means we can skip a week of grocery shopping every so often!
Carissa wrote, “I’m a farmer, so I have lots of produce seconds available! Sadly, we’re so busy in the summer I don’t have much time for canning. But I blanch and freeze lots of green beans and broccoli, slow roast and freeze peppers and tomatoes, and even sometimes freeze small batches of jam when canning is just too intimidating at the end of a long day. I also make fermented pickles and sauerkraut, and store for months in our extra fridge. Those things together with our stored potatoes, onions, rutabagas and squash mean that we hardly buy any produce through our long northern Michigan winters, so I’d say it saves us a lot of money! Though I’ve never calculated it out, since I don’t have a normal produce bill to compare it to.”
Victoria says, “This is my fourth year with a CSA and working to eat more locally/seasonally. Every year I get a bit overwhelmed at one point or another. I always have two go-to recipes when this happens. The first is stir fry. In a large skillet I cook up tofu and veggies with some soy sauce, ginger, garlic and usually some chili or black bean paste of some kind. The other is a basic curry. So either tofu or chicken in the crock pot with all the cut up veggies, some curry paste or powder and 1 can of coconut milk. Either of these recipes will basically work with anything cookable that comes in my weekly CSA share. Greens, squashes, potatoes, tomatoes, corn, they all work out just fine for me. I did just make my first batch of oven dried tomatoes. I was amazed at how much better these are than the sundried tomatoes I get from the grocery that are quite expensive. I’m storing them in some olive oil in my fridge for a quick bit of brightness to my dishes. And then of course its also cucumber season around here, so I have many jars of quick pickles made with garlic from my CSA and dill seed that I get from one of my coworkers who does a lot of home gardening.”
Well now I’m hungry! This is an excellent range of diverse ideas on what to do with excess produce. What I find most interesting is that many (most?) of the readers who shared advice don’t live on a farm or a homestead and many don’t even grow their own foods. Nevertheless, there are a plethora of options and opportunities for preserving food.
From purchasing discount produce at farmstands, to figuring out what to do with a CSA share, to gleaning unused fruits from around a neighborhood, Frugalwoods readers have once again opened my eyes to all the possibilities for creating even more food products from scratch. Freezing seems to be the universally agreed upon easiest method of saving foods for later and I’m a big fan. I’ll add that dehydrating foods (we dehydrate apples using this dehydrator) is similarly super simple. Canning takes a bit more work, and the first time you do it involves a learning curve. But as with most things, the more you practice, the easier it gets.
There are some start-up costs involved with home food preservation–a deep freeze perhaps, canning supplies, and the food itself–but it also seems there are a number of benefits. Chiefly, making your own food from scratch, whether it’s bread or pickles, allows you to control the ingredients, which is a wonderful thing. I used to buy organic, whole grain bread from the grocery store for $5 a loaf and it still had preservatives in it! Now, I bake my own bread (using a hand-me-down bread machine that’s probably as old as I am) for pennies per loaf. I like knowing what I’m eating, and especially what my daughter is eating. I’m not organized or proficient enough to make all of our food from scratch, but I find that the foods we do make ourselves taste better, are healthier, and cost much less money in the long run.